What will come of all this?!

Josh Elwell takes a look at some of the work that has been created during lockdown and reflects on ‘where are we at?’ in a year that has meant huge changes for puppeteers.

There is no doubt that, like many art forms within the live arts sector, puppetry and puppeteers have taken a huge hit this year. Theatres have closed, tours have been cancelled, projects have been dropped and artists are struggling. After months of uncertainty and a new lockdown in place, there is much concern about the future of live performance.

I think we can all agree that it has been a challenging time for us puppeteers. However, there has been a huge amount of creativity bubbling out of the struggle. It seems that there is some truth in restriction providing artists with something to kick against and take inspiration from. This of course does not take away from the very real need for us to earn a living and to find new ways to monetise our work within a completely new landscape. There are those who have found this all really hard and continue to do so, and this is entirely understandable given the circumstances.

It is my hope that by drawing attention to and celebrating some of the incredible creative work that has started to surface out of the thick Covid mist, it may inspire us all to take new brave steps towards breaking new ground.

Over the last 6 months there have been some weird, wonderful and outright trailblazing work going on within the puppet community. Here are a few of these projects that have crossed my radar. Please let us know at Puppet Place if you hear of any more or you yourself are in the process of working on something.

‘I Want My Hat Back’. Directed by Ian Nicholson, Little Angel Theatre

One of the first puppet pieces to appear online during the first lockdown was a live performance of Jon Klassen’s picture book ‘I Want My Hat Back’. Little Angel Theatre partnered with theatre director Ian Nicholson to stream a live performance. The show was broadcast on Little Angel Theatre’s YouTube channel during Easter earlier this year. Nicholson directed and performed the show from home, with a delightful set by Samuel Wilde and music by Jim Whitcher. 

This show paved the way for a whole program of work commissioned by Little Angel and presented by a talented cohort of associated artists. This ranges from a charming tale of ‘Little Fish’ told by Kneehigh’s Mike Shepherd to a compelling telling of ‘Rumplestiltskin’ by Arran Glass. If you go now to Little Angel Theatre’s YouTube channel you will find a superb array of performance, storytelling and creative ideas.

Then Norwich Puppet Theatre decided to create their own Online Puppet Theatre YouTube channel…

Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts, Norwich Puppet Theatre

NPT have commissioned some of the top names in touring British Puppetry to present a series of brand new performances of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts poems.

Each mini-show has beed created and performed by a different artist or company working in lockdown, using Roald Dahl’s original words and lots of different styles of puppetry. These vary from animation to marionettes and everything in-between.

There is a hilarious rendition of Cinderella by Mark Mander and Clementine the living doll (who we have previously spoken to.) This is as engaging for adults as children. Just as beguiling is the true story of Goldilocks created and performed by Nik Palmer & Sarah Rowland-Barker of Noisy Oyster, performed on a miniature set with rod marionettes. There are many more and they are all well worth a watch for free on the NPT YouTube Channel.

Another company that has put together some impressive online output is Theatre Rites. They have adapted two of their productions for YouTube and have made a hybrid children’s TV/theatre series with their show ‘Talking Rubbish’. These are two short films created during lockdown inspired by rubbish and recycling. 

‘Big Up’ Theatre-Rites

They have also put together a big collection of very short films based on their show ‘Big Up’. ‘Big Up – at Home’ is aimed at little people who want to be Big and Big people who might just have forgotten how to play. They’ve been adding content weekly so you can check in for more beatboxing, puppetry and music that you can create at home.

With Beverly Puppet Festival going online earlier this year, many small companies like Garlic Theatre, Hand to Mouth, Moth and Indigo Moon were cajoled into creating work in a new way. You can still check them out on the Festival website

Beverley Puppet Festival Flyer

Many other festivals have also gone online and offered artists the opportunity to present work in a new way. I was asked to produce a short film for Bournemouth Arts by the Sea Festival that introduced various different puppet styles as well as sharing how to make a puppet at home.

One extraordinary project that has striven to break new ground with its live puppet variety/magazine show is Puppets at the Pop Up Palladium. We have a separate interview with them in this issue. Check it out.

These are just a few examples of what people have been up to during this crazy year. In some cases having to create work for an audience online has made work widely accessible to a much bigger audience. 

Whilst there has been a willingness of the Arts Council to support artists in adapting their work to the climate, the longer term question of where all this is leading us is yet to be fully answered. Is the answer in charging audiences to access live performance online? Are there more ways, yet undiscovered, that artists and puppeteers can adapt their work in a way that will sustain them? One thing is certain – creativity is clearly alive and kicking and artists are continuing to producing outstanding work. Please let us know what you are up to!

Article by Josh Elwell

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